It’s strange to look back, somewhat sentimentally, on the habits and idiosyncrasies I was raised with. A now defunct fringe religious group (some would say cult) had an enormous part to play in making me who I am today — for good and for ill. Through my own memories and research, and with the perspective of time and distance, I can’t but feel that much of my experience was so utterly bizarre, so ultra specific and so locked into a by-gone era, that it is nearly impossible to explain to others not raised in a similar circumstance. And, so, I find it nearly impossible to explain a large part of myself to others.
If I had to sum it up to an outsider, I would say that, from my experience, this is the most destructive thing the Church did: It took simple, everyday experiences and gave them undue cosmic significance.
Dinner time was not simply a family meal. It was a religious event. Families who did not eat dinner together, with the father at the head of the table, were bad families. Recess was not as simple as going out to play in the playground. I had to carefully guard myself around these outsider children. I often just read alone, though I was a perfectly social child. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play, but figuring out a paradigm of “in the world not of the world” is not easy when you are six.
My parents think it was adorable that, for years, I had Santa and Satan confused. I don’t think it’s so cute. We can certainly talk about the moral issue of fibbing to children about Santa, but any way you look at it, allowing your child to be afraid that Satan is going to come down her chimney is probably worse.
I remember being in grade three. It was Valentines Day and I had one of those teachers who made the kids give everyone in class a Valentine if they were going to be giving any at all. I walked into class to find my desk covered in these sinful cards! I wasn’t angry at the kids who gave them to me, I just didn’t know what to do with them! So I chucked them, wholesale, into the garbage. Well, one girl saw me throw away the cards and candies without even opening them and she burst into tears. I really didn’t mean to hurt her, it was just overwhelming!
Every part of life had a sacred significance. And every mistake afforded cosmic consequences.
When I was small, I recall my father calling for me. I either didn’t hear him or “didn’t hear” in that way children do. He stormed into the room and said, “Why don’t you come when you’re called!? What if I was calling you to go to the Place of Safety and then had to leave you behind!?”
Simple behavior management issue = an issue of eternal significance.
From the time I was young, probably about ten, my dad had printed up and taped to my bedroom wall Armstrong’s Seven Laws Of Success. Periodically, he would tack on laws of his own making. The last law (pretty sure this is my dad’s contribution) was Failure is Not an Option. Now, what kind of fucked up message is that to tell to a little kid? If you fail, you have broken a law. So, above all, don’t fail. Let me tell you, this sets you up for a world of neurosis.
My father also included some personal family lifestyle rules in line with Armstrong’s teaching. No dating until you are 16. And after that, only group dating. (To clarify, group dating is any social situation where there are males and females my age.) And, naturally, we only date within the Church. Besides that, I was constantly admonished to “date widely,” as was the encouragement at Ambassador College.
Now, it was around age fourteen that my libido started to take take a critical look at my situation. I mean, my make-out opportunities were not only severely limited by my parents idea that any mixed-gender event constituted a date, but, by the fact that, due to living in such an isolated area, the only contender was a somewhat awkward boy who attended services infrequently.
It was not with any great thought or significant study that I fell away from Armstrong’s teachings as an early teen. I think, in large part, I was lonely. I was tired of being isolated. And I was so bored. In grade 9, I fell in love with a saxophone player who was in grade 12. After seeing each other in secret for about a month, I was counseled by well meaning adults to just tell my parents, who, they were sure, would understand! I mean, this was a very normal, age appropriate situation I was in. I wasn’t cutting class to have sex (yet). It was just a sweet, high school romance. So, with my heart in my throat, I went to my parents just before Christmas to tell them I liked a boy.
The shit hit the fan. I have no idea why I though they would be OK with this. This night set me up for four years of absolute hell. As I said in the beginning, simple, everyday things, like a teenager falling in love, are given cosmic weight. I was a bad daughter. A bad person.
I tried so desperately to get out. I researched emancipation from your parents and fantasized about this constantly. Ryan, the saxophonist boyfriend, was even willing to marry me, if such a thing could be arranged, in order to help. I called Child Protective Services a number of times, only to hang up. If I tried to report what was going on and then was not removed immediately, my abuse, I was sure, would increase. There was mild physical abuse (slaps across the face, that sort of thing) but that wasn’t the worst of it. There were periods where I wasn’t allowed to sleep in a bed. I wasn’t allowed to be in a room with the door closed. I wasn’t allowed to speak to my grandmother, who lived in the same house.
The most hurtful thing was something my mother said after I had been “caught” with Ryan once. We were driving in the van. I am the oldest of 5. The others were in the back seat. My mother is spewing venom and yelled to the children in the back, “Kids, don’t be like Joy. I want you to promise me you won’t be like Joy. Say it!” And from the back of the van came little children, mumbling, “We won’t be like Joy.”
What is hard to explain to those not from the WCG is the religious and spiritual undercurrent to all this. What I was doing was an affront to the Church and to God. I was worse than an unbeliever.
I retain a couple triggers from this time that still set me off. The first is people talking behind closed doors. I struggle with this at work. If my boss is in his office talking to a co-worker, my heart drops and I instantly assume I have done something bad and have been found out.
I am also made extremely anxious if I feel I can’t read the emotions or intentions of others. I am exceptionally perceptive when it comes to reading people and am constantly suspicious as to the motives of others. Each day of my life, as a teen, I would walk the mile from where the school bus dropped me to home in a state of terror. Had they found something? Had I done something and they heard about it? I would try to read my parents and see what state they were in. If they are cold or aloof that day, is it because of something I’ve done?
Like many girls with no real form of self expression or control over their lives, I became anorexic. I remember accidentally skipping breakfast and then lunch one day. By evening, I simply wasn’t hungry any more and refused dinner. And it just spiraled from there. Magically, when I eventually did break free, I returned, almost without thought, to eating normally.
My ticket out, I believed, would be music. I had no money and no hope of getting any. But I could play the piano. I thought if I worked hard enough, I could get a scholarship to university and get the hell out of there! Music also provided me with a social network outside the Church that I desperately needed.
Largely, my plan worked! With one happy surprise. I met Dave at the Feast of Tabernacles (how stereotypical!) We were both the brooding, angst filled teens who didn’t even fit in with the Worldwide crew. He was older than me. Done with school. A writer and an artist. Long story short, I got on a bus with Dave the day after HS graduation and never looked back. My fathers parting words to Dave: “Watch out for that girl. She’s too bloomin’ independent.” And I did indeed get a scholarship large enough to allow me to afford university near Dave.
With our families around, however, it was simply not possible to truly be free. So, when I was 19 and Dave was offered a job on the other side of the country, we grabbed it. Still having a lot of befuddled WCG beliefs and hang ups, we felt we needed to marry if we were going to live together. So we married a few short weeks later and flew out the day after our wedding. We’ve been married 7 years now and still consider this the best decision either of us ever made. Also, I (we) are not the only ones to see early marriage as a means of escape from the Church.
The end of the story is happy, I guess. We’ve both ended up fairly agnostic, anarchistic, polyamorous weirdos. But we’re definitely happy about those things. And with one another. And, sure, there have been bizarre episodes along the way – like that time I almost became a priest. Still, in a strange way, Armstrong lead us to become the happy odd-balls that we are.
But our families are shattered. Personally, spiritually and financially. Both of our sets of parents cling to Armstrong’s ways. I have four nieces in the Philadelphia Church of God I shall never be allowed to know. I still compulsively look for lard on the backs of those little Saltine cracker packs. My mother still sends me audio tapes of sermons by Dr. Hoeh (high five if you know how to pronounce his name.) I still think about sending my therapy bill to “Headquarters.” So there is bitterness too.
I am currently researching for a book that will be part memoir and part examination of the Armstrong Phenomenon from a sociological and anthropological point of view. If anyone would like to be in touch regarding my project, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org